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An Issue of Supreme Importance for 2016

In America, Conservatism, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, News and Current Events, Politics, The Supreme Court on April 22, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This piece originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

The time has come for politicians to announce their candidacy for president. In the following weeks we can expect more names to be tossed into the hat of presidential hopefuls. Already Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul have proclaimed their desire to lead our country. Hillary Clinton made her candidacy official Sunday, and Senator Marco Rubio announced on Monday night.

The 2016 election is shaping up to be the most pivotal in decades, including for reasons not everyone is talking about.

It’s true that Republicans will challenge Obama’s legacy and that everything from Obamacare to payday loans will receive renewed and energetic scrutiny on the campaign trail.

Yet these won’t be the most pressing domestic issues facing the next president. Even more important will be the president’s judicial philosophy. That’s because the probability is high that the nation’s next chief executive administration will nominate at least three candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although confidence in the Court is at an all-time low, voters do not seem particularly concerned about the Court’s future composition. Perhaps the typical voter does not understand the role the president plays in nominating justices. Perhaps the goings-on of the judicial branch seem distant and aloof and out of the purview of our everyday worries. Perhaps most people are too short-sighted to consider the long-term and far-reaching effects that a president can have on the legal system. Whatever the reason, voters should re-prioritize. Conservatives should move this issue to the forefront of the debates.

When the president is inaugurated in January 2017, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, widely thought to be in poor health, will be two months shy of her 84th birthday; Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy will be 80; and Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78. Is it reasonable to expect these justices to serve out four more years under another administration?

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer are considered members of the left wing of the Court whereas Justice Scalia is considered to be on the right. Justice Kennedy is famously known as the Court’s “swing vote.”

If a Republican wins in 2016 election, he could replace two liberal members of the Court, leaving just two other remaining: Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. If Justice Kennedy were also to step down during the next administration, a Republican president could further expand the conservative wing of the Court to seven, making room for a vast majority in contentious cases. If the right wing of the Court enjoyed a 7-2 majority today, for instance, there would be less media speculation about how the Court would decide cases on same-sex marriage, religious freedom, immigration, or campaign finance.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which conducts hearings on presidential nominees to the High Court, currently consists of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. Republicans hold a 54-member majority in the Senate, the governing body that confirms presidential nominees to the Court. If these numbers remain unchanged or only slightly changed under a Republican president, that president would have wide latitude to nominate candidates who have tested and principled commitments to conservatism.

Let’s say the presidential election favored a Democrat. A Democratic president could simply replace the departing Justice Ginsburg or Justice Breyer with a jurist in their mold, in effect filling a liberal seat with another liberal. If a Democratic president were up against a Republican Senate, however, his or her nominees would have to appear less liberal than Justice Ginsburg to ensure their confirmation.

Replacing Justice Scalia, arguably the most conservative justice on the Court, with a liberal would be transformative. Although depicted as an unpredictable moderate, Justice Kennedy was nominated by a Republican and more often than not votes with the right wing of the Court. Replacing him with a liberal justice would be a victory for the left. It is possible for the left wing of the Court to gain a 6-3 majority if a Democrat succeeds President Obama.

It’s not inconceivable that in the time he last left, President Obama could name at least one successor to the Court. Barring some unforeseen illness or act of God, however, that is unlikely to happen this late in his presidency. Justice Ginsburg insists on remaining on the Court, and Justice Breyer still has some healthy, productive years ahead of him.

Judges’ and justices’ judicial philosophies are not easily pressed into two sides—conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat—because law itself usually is not reducible to raw politics or naked partisanship, and a judge’s job entails more than interpreting the language of legislative enactments. Law deals with the complex interactions of people and institutions under disputed circumstances that are portrayed and recounted from different perspectives; therefore, law rarely fits cleanly within simplistic political frameworks.

For this reason, among others, it can be difficult to predict how potential justices will rule from the bench if they are installed on the Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren ushered in the progressive “Warren Court Era” even though he had served as the Republican Governor of California and, in 1948, as the vice-presidential running mate of presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. More recently President George H.W. Bush nominated Justice David Souter to the Court. Justice Souter tended to vote consistently with the liberal members of the Court.

The Senate confirmation process has grown more contentious in recent years, and that has made it more difficult for another Souter to slip by the president. But it has also watered down our nominees, whose lack of a paper trail is considered a benefit rather than evidence of a lack of conviction or philosophical knowledge (lawyers are trained, not educated). It has come to a point where if you’re confirmable, you’re not reliable, and if you’re reliable, you’re not confirmable. Chief Justice John Roberts’ acrobatic attempt to uphold the individual mandate in Obamacare on the ground that it was a “tax” reveals just how squishy and unpredictable our justices have become.

There is, of course, the trouble with categorizing: What does it mean to be a “conservative” or a “liberal” judge or justice? Our presidential candidates may have different answers. In January Senator Paul declared himself a “judicial activist,” a label that is gaining favor among libertarians. He appears to have backed away from that position, recently bemoaning “out-of-control, unelected federal judges.” Activist judges, at any rate, can be on the right or the left.

Ted Cruz has not advertised his judicial philosophy yet, but by doing so he could set himself apart because of his vast legal experience, including his service as the Solicitor General of Texas. Two potential presidential nominees, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, are also attorneys, but Rubio’s legal experience, or non-experience, is subject to question, and Graham has been out of the legal field for some time—although he serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has intimate knowledge of the Senate confirmation prospects for potential nominees.

It matters a great deal what our presidential candidates believe about the hermeneutics and jurisprudence embraced by potential Supreme Court justices. In the coming months voters will have the power to force candidates to address their judicial philosophy. The candidates must articulate clearly, thoroughly, and honestly what qualities they admire in judges because those qualities might just shape the nation’s political landscape for decades to come.

Conservatives have much to lose or gain this election in terms of the judiciary. Supreme Court nominations should be a top priority for Republicans when debate season arrives.
Read more at http://spectator.org/articles/62383/issue-supreme-importance-2016

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Book Synopsis: Miller, William Lee. Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, The South on October 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

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This is the story of America’s struggle to end slavery without destroying the union.  The book deliberately focuses on the rhetoric of white male politicians and thus does not purport to tell the “whole” story, but only that part of the story which is most recoverable and hence most knowable.  Many early 19th century politicians averred that the Northern textile industry, which was roughly as powerful as today’s oil industry, depended on Southern slavery.  An industry with such power and control over the financial interests of the country can, Miller argues, cause social changes to come about more slowly.  When talking about slavery, Miller submits, American politicians of the time had to deal with inherent contradictions in the American tradition: a nation that celebrated equality and the virtues of the “common man” had to come to terms with the fact that African slaves, officially excluded from citizenry, embodied the “common man” ideal but were not permitted to climb the social and economic ladder.  Most politicians did not believe slavery could end abruptly but would end gradually as economic dependence turned elsewhere.  Slavery went against all the principles and rhetoric of America’s founding documents, and yet there it was, a thriving and ubiquitous industry.

The book begins in 1835, when Congress deliberated over petitions to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia.  Congress took on these petitions reluctantly, unwilling to address a contentious and divisive issue that would disrupt congressional and governmental harmony.  Congress wished the issue would just go away—but realized that it could not.  During this congressional session, most of the speechmaking came from proslavery Southerners, since Northern politicians were, generally, too afraid to take a stand one way or the other.

Major figures from this session include the following:

President Andrew Jackson

John Fairfield: Congressman from Vermont who introduces the petitions to abolish slavery in D.C.

Franklin Pierce: Eventually the fourteenth President, he is, at this time, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He is a Northerner with Southern sympathies.

James Henry Hammond: Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams.

John Quincy Adams: A former president (the nation’s sixth), he is, at this time, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.

Henry Laurens Pinckney: A Congressman from South Carolina who opposed Fairfield and Adams but who also did not get along with John C. Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun: A U.S. Senator from South Carolina, having resigned from the Vice Presidency.

Martin Van Buren: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eighth), he is, at this time, the Vice President under Andrew Jackson.

James K. Polk: Eventually a U.S. President (the nation’s eleventh), he is, at this time, a member of the U.S. House from the State of Tennessee.

The debates in Congress were fueled by abolitionist literature (written by people like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizur Wright, Jr.) and oration that maintained not only that slavery was wrong (as people had maintained for decades) but also that its demise was the nation’s highest priority.  Congress could not “sit on its hands” while abolitionists protested and demanded change; it had to respond, albeit reluctantly, to an institution that many congressmen assumed was already doomed.  The demise of slavery was supposed to be inevitable, according to the common logic, yet it persisted; therefore, the abolitionists forced Congress to address slavery, the demise of which, the abolitionists argued, was not as inevitable as people supposed.

The Senate also faced petitions.  Senator Calhoun became the most colorful and powerful figure opposing these positions.  Calhoun and his followers often employed “liberal” rhetoric on the Senate floor.  Henry Laurens Pinckney authored the gag rule, which was an attempt to stop citizens from submitting antislavery petitions.  (Calhoun despised Pinckney so much that he endorsed unionist candidates to take over Pinckney’s Congressional seat.)  The gag rule was adopted by a 117-68 vote, thus suggesting that the nation was more united on the issue of slavery than popular thought maintains.  The gag rule required congressmen to set aside slavery petitions immediately, without so much as printing them.  John Quincy Adams would spend the following years in Congress battling the so-called gag rule.

At this point in the book, Adams becomes the central figure.  Adams, then a distinguished ex-president, was in his 60s and 70s as he fought against the gag order.  He maintained that not only abolitionists but also slaves could petition.  Miller argues that this position shows the extent to which Adams was willing to risk his reputation and what was left of his career in order to stand up to the Southern gag order.  Other congresspersons were slow to join Adams in his fight.  During these debates, very little was said of African Americans, and most of the debates focused on the rights and roles of government and ignored the human persons that that government was supposed to serve and protect.

After Martin Van Buren became president, succeeding Andrew Jackson, he announced that he would veto any bill involving the issue of slavery in D.C. or the slave states.  Nevertheless, the petitions continued to pour in.  Adams himself began submitting petitions.  The gag resolutions had to be passed each session, but a gag rule was announced in 1840 that, in essence, made the “gagging” permanent.  Adams led the effort to rescind this rule.  He grew closer and closer to the abolitionists as he precipitated disarray in the House.  He also made several speeches despite threats against his life.  Adams’s opponents tried to get the entire House to censure him, but they failed.  Adams used the censure trials as an occasion to bring slavery to the forefront of Congressional debate.  In 1844, Adams succeeded in having the gag rule abolished.

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